In the last five years, Javon Johnson has been many things.
He serves as a professor at USC, holds a title as the USC Visions and Voices: The Arts and Humanities Initiative first post-doctoral fellow and is one of only two back to-back National Slam Poetry champions. But Johnson defines himself differently.
“I’m a poet, an artist, a mentor, a performer — all of the above,” Johnson said. “I can connect with young people, I can relate to them and inspire them. I don’t look like the typical professor here, because it wasn’t too long ago that I was a student.”
Johnson is no stranger to the rigors of the academic world. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication studies at Cal State Los Angeles, Johnson attended Northwestern University, where he completed a Ph.D in performance studies in 2010. He currently teaches at USC in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, where he has pioneered a course in African American studies.
As students will soon discover, however, Johnson is just as impressive outside the classroom.
As part of Visions and Voices, Johnson will take the stage on Thursday Aug. 23 at Bovard Auditorium and perform during the seventh-annual SPARK! kickoff, where students will get a sense of Johnson’s high performance energy and enlightening poetry.
Anyone who saw Johnson perform last year at SPARK! can recognize the range in Johnson’s writing — from political satire to dark comedy to achingly honest love — as a signature characteristic of his work. He frequently references pop culture icons like Michael Jackson or noted historical figures like Malcolm X. Still, Johnson makes sure he maintains a personal connection to his subject matter.
“[My poems are] either about somebody I admire or a topic that I’m passionate about,” said Johnson. “In that respect, I’m always writing love poems to life.”
But Johnson’s natural creativity comes out most in the vivid imagery employed in his poetry. Using phrases like “men with shrapnel for hands” to describe white supremacists of the 1960s or “wrinkles on her face like tattooed laughter” to illustrate his grandmother’s resilience set shim apart from his peers.
Still, just as Johnson bears a stylistic distinction from his spoken word contemporaries, he also has a unique story behind his interest in poetry. Though most poets cite specific authors or pieces of literature as the inspiration behind their own creations, Johnson’s literary ambitions were inspired by a different source — his high school crush.
“When I was in high school, a girl I was particularly attracted to came up to me and said, ‘I heard you were a poet,” Johnson said. “At the time, I hadn’t written a single line of poetry. But she said, ‘That’s totally hot and sexy that you write poetry.’ … That day, I went home and wrote my first poem and gave it to her. From then on, I was a poet.”
Eleven years later, after giving performances at nearly 100 college campuses across the nation, Johnson is one of the most well-known slam poets in history. Described by his fans as having a “captivating energy,” Johnson has been commended for his ability to effortlessly combine social commentary, dark humor and emotion into a single piece of writing.
“I couldn’t not be a writer. I don’t know how not to be one,” Johnson said. “But I will tell you that my writing style has changed dramatically over the years. … I don’t feel a need to be boisterous — I appreciate subtlety.”
John attributes his transformation to years of life experience.
“I’ve definitely made mistakes,” said Johnson. “I probably shouldn’t say this on record, but I encourage my students to make mistakes. That’s how you learn.”
Johnson’s connection to USC runs far deeper than his year of teaching.
Born and raised in South Los Angeles, Johnson grew up just minutes away from campus and considers USC his home. Still, Johnson’s admiration for USC is not based on its locale but on something innate about its students.
“There’s something different about the Trojan Family. … There’s never been an energy even close to what I feel here,” Johnson said. “There’s a creativity and a commitment to doing something. Everybody’s doing something, and that’s incredibly inspiring.”
As Johnson prepares for his Visions and Voices performance, his message to his students is simple.
“Relax. Practice, practice, practice and perform. Listen more than you talk, write more than you perform and fight on.”